What may turn out to be China’s worst boat disaster for more than 60 years, state television showed the grim scene as military and police frogmen continued to pull bodies from the hull of the Eastern Star, which now lies upturned just a few dozen meters from the bank of the Yangtze in central Hubei province. One body was shown on live TV, lying partially covered on the hull of the boat.
State media also showed pictures of Premier Li Keqiang and other officials, who had arrived at the scene on Tuesday, bowing in respect to the bodies of two victims as they lay covered on the deck of a nearby boat. Previously, reports said, Li had held meetings “throughout the night,” as the increasingly desperate attempts to find survivors continued. By Wednesday evening, China Central Television (CCTV) was reporting on its Twitter feed that 26 bodies have been recovered, including a number of bodies found further downstream the previous day. Officials said there were now more than 200 frogmen at the site; many worked overnight under floodlights from a nearby salvage vessel, and holes have been cut in the hull to facilitate access. The water level on the river has also been lowered by about 20 inches, CCTV reported, by closing sluice gates on the giant Three Gorges Dam upriver, in an attempt to make working conditions easier.
Meanwhile speculation has continued as to how the boat, a 76.5-meter luxury cruise ship, overturned so quickly that its crew apparently did not have time to issue a distress signal — and most passengers did not have time to jump into the river. Reports say the ship was hit by a tornado and capsized within little over a minute. There are also reports that the boat may have tried to turn around on the river, in an attempt to anchor as the storm got worse.
But some Chinese media have questioned whether a renovation of the ship’s upper cabins may have affected its center of gravity. Internet users have also asked questions about why the ship’s captain and first engineer were among the small number of confirmed survivors: some accused them of deserting the ship — though state TV said it was possible they had gone out on deck to check what was happening and had simply been thrown into the river, though it said this had not been confirmed. Both officials are being held by police for questioning.